Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Still more thoughts on historical accuracy

The Historical Novel Society e-mail list has been having another discussion on "historical accuracy" in fiction.  It was generated by an article in Publisher's Weekly about an insistence  -- mostly in some recent films, for "authenticity", and an insistence by some viewers(of film) and some readers, on "absolutes" in "authenticity".  I can understand that many people who see a historical film or read a piece of historical fiction, want to have some idea about the times the stories being told.  But the author of the  Publisher's Weekly article seemed to think, as, to some extent, I do, that "story" was being sacrificed to "detail".  This is tricky.  Some authors can do this kind of thing very well, without sacrificing "story" at all.  But usually being bogged down in too much "detail" will turn a reader off(it's more problematic in films, which was one reason why some people who know the period, roundly criticized the film Kingdom of Heaven a few years back.  On the other hand, even if you don't know very much about the Third Crusade -- and I don't -- it sounded like an awful film just in terms of things like acting and storyline.  But that's another problem.  I'm talking about writing here.  The discussion at the Historical Novel Society e-mail list devolved into a discussion of how much period detail  certain authors put into their books.  One author proudly asserted that they were  so detail-oriented, that they were trying to find the brand name of some type of accordion that was manufactured in the early 20th century.  What?????  Would most readers of this story even care?  This seems to follow a trend found in certain fiction set in contemporary times, where the personalities of certain types of characters, especially if they are supposed to be monied and "refined"(whether they are or not), are associated with the brand names of certain products(e.g. Rolex watches, certain brands of whiskey, etc., etc.).  I don't know why the authors  of these books(usually thrillers or mysteries) are so fascinated by these brand names, but  naming the brands sometimes just annoys me. I"m reading one such book right now.  It's otherwise quite good, and I'll have to admit the brand names do add a certain "color" to the story being told. 


However, I think in historical fiction(or fiction of whatever genre, that uses a historical setting), this may be problematic.  In the first place, many readers may not even care about such fine detail, and won't even recall it if asked.  In the second place, if you go back far enough, you won't even find this kind of "branding"; it's a concept that took hold, basically within the last 150 years.  So if you're writing a novel set in ancient Greece, you're going to be out of luck, although if you're really interested in such fine detail, there is such an abundant literature, and so many sources, on ancient Greece, that you can certainly put in a lot of fine detail if that's what you desire to do. 


My own feeling on this is, that this kind of attention to historical detail may be more about what the author wants, than what the reader is interested. in.  In other words, if an author is obsessed with learning all he or she can about a particular historical period,  then every little detail will be important to them.  Sometimes this is good.  The trick, however, is to know where and when to stop.  Some kinds of details can be hinted at or implied.  In my own Invaders trilogy, the action really starts in a place called Boxgrove.  This Boxgrove is a real place, and existed at the time I'm writing about, but the significance of Boxgrove has more to do with early human history, at least in England, than any "historical" significance.  Yet it establishes certain things about the characters and their associations.  One of the characters mentions, in passing, that "archaic" humans once lived there.  This helps establish their own history, and also allows three of the important characters to meet(they end up going elsewhere, however).  This is an important detail.  Lovingly describing the style of a local church, for example, probably is not, though it might be if you were writing  something about cathedral-building. 


Still, I'm not sure that describing the brand of accordion somebody plays is necessarily the kind, or amount, of detail one would want to go into, even for a novel set somewhere, in the early part of the 20th  century.  It  just seems, well, kind of obsessive-compulsive to me.


On the other hand, there seem to be basically two camps of historical novel readers(and writers).  On the one hand, there are those who insist on as much "detail"(including things like the brand names of accordions), as possible, for the sake of authenticity.  These people tend to feel, although they might not put it this way, that accuracy almost trumps story, and that somehow, you must be "100% accurate" in telling your story, otherwise, you, the critic, will not read or believe it.  I am not talking here about obvious, egregious mistakes.  I'm talking about how "story" fits with "history" when telling a tale.  Some authors and readers insist on "no deviations whatever".  All I can say is, some rule that says "to write historical fiction, you must be 100 % true to the period and 100% accurate") "whatever "being true to the period" might mean), is as deadly to an aspiring writer, as  the advice "write what  you know", without qualifications, can be to many aspiring writers.  Because being "100% accurate" is an impossibility.  This is true even in periods when there is abundant source material.  It simply cannot be done, though it is quite possible to give an accurate flavor of any period, and at the same time put in some interesting, colorful, and accurate detail(but don't overwhelm the reader with it. 


The other side says, and I generally agree, that "story" comes first.  Because you can't have a historical novel or any other kind of novel, without "story".  This is what readers care about, even if they are very interested in a particular historical period and want to read everything written about it.  They will still be looking for a story.  If it's not there, they might as well read a nonfictional history.  However, this does not mean that a writer who is writing something set in a historical period should allow themselves to be careless, or not do any but the most superficial of research.  In this sense, accuracy is very, very important.  But a good writer knows, or learns, just how much detail to put in, and  how much to simply imply.    As for "being true to the period", I'm often puzzled by what this is supposed to mean.  It assumes there would have been "a" mindset in the past that was universal for that place and time, and anyone who thinks about this, knows this is simply not the case.  Again, this doesn't mean that people need to be presented as thinking "just like us" in some historical period, because people didn't.  Something like same sex marriage, for example, would have been simply unthinkable 100 years ago.  It wasn't even entirely "thinkable" ten years ago!  So it wouldn't do to have some happily married gay couple in the 19th century, although there were men who lived with men and women who lived with women, and probably people "knew" what they were in some sense.  They could get away with it as long as "they didn't do it in public and it didn't scare the horses", so to speak.  There are plenty of other examples like this, but there are also examples of things some historical novelists insist people didn't do at a particular period, which is one reason I'm so leery about people pontificating about "mindsets" or "being true to the period". 


In short, I think there are a lot of writers(and readers) who are attracted to historical fiction because they are very "detail oriented" in certain ways.  This is fine, and can be a very, very good thing, in the hands of writers who know what they are doing, and where to stop.  In other hands, it can become an "obsessive-compulsive" nightmare, and may turn off the very readers, or potential writers, that it's supposed to attract.

Anne G

Murder and mayhem at Shanidar Cave?

Several days ago, a story came out on several venues, that suggested a Neandertal inhabitant of Shanidar Cave, living some 45,000 years ago, was injured by a projectile weapon wielded by a "modern" human.  The story was on many venues; this particular one is a typical example.  The author of the paper that generated all these news stories, Steven Churchill, seems to have come up with the idea that the kind of wound sustained by Mr.. Shanidar(there is evidence of an injury to one of his rib bones), could only have been made by some sort of projectile weapon, such as a thrown spear, or what is sometimes referred to as an "atlatl".  Now examples of atlatl's are known only in association with "modern" humans.  The only problem is, that these weapons are found in periods long after there were any Neandertals, anywhere. 


The John Hawks weblog has a few things to say about this, and much of what Dr. Hawks says on this issue, makes a lot of sense.  For one thing, there is no evidence of any "modern" humans in the vicinity of Shanidar Cave, in northern Iraq, anywhere near the time Shanidar 3 and his fellow Neandertals occupied it.  It's certainly true that there is no evidence that Neandertals had projectile weapons or tools such as atlatls.  Supposedly, they "only" had "thrusting spears", which could "only" be used at close range on prey.  However. . . . .


Several years ago, at a place called Schöningen, Germany, several long, javelin-like implements were found.  They were made of wood, about seven feet long, and hardened and sharpened at one end.  They look to me not unlike much, much later medieval lances, which are meant to be thrown.  But these "lances" or whatever they are, are around 400,000 years old!  Those who study them, agree that they were apparently throwing weapons.


You might object that Neandertals lost the technology.  Maybe.  But, on the other hand, these 400,000 year old "spears", or whatever they are, were luckily preserved.  Very few prehistoric items made from wood have survived, and then only under very unusual circumstances.  So the question remains:  is it possible that Neandertals had more items in their inventory than "thrusting spears"?    We have no way of knowing, of course, but it certainly is a possibility.  It's perfectly possible, too, that they simply lost this technology at some point, because they didn't need it, but I would think that in a situation where you are likely "foraging" every day, for whatever you can find to eat in the landscape, anything that helped you bring it home to your humble cave or rockshelter, would have been kept, or at least modified.  Of course, it is possible that "thrusting spears" are modified "javelins".  I don't know.


What I find troubling is, that Steven Churchill seems to assume that Neandertals didn't have certain kinds of technologies.  Except that they could be awfully ingenious with what they did have.  They could make hafting glue out of birch pitch, which requires heating the birch pitch(or pitch of other trees, or tar, as in a find in Syria), to a certain temperature, and keeping that temperature constant -- no mean feat when you don't even have a fireplace to do it in. But that is exactly what they apparently did.


Even more troubling about this, is something else  which I've pointed out on a number of different venues.  There seems to be another assumption, which is very attractive to a number of people, that somehow "modern" humans are "naturally violent and aggressive".  This viewpoint is interesting, and there certainly appears to be a "human nature", just as you might say there is a "wolf nature", for example.  But people have been trying to figure out exactly what "human nature" si for at least the last5 2,000 years, and have not yet figured it out.  "Human nature" is a lot of things, some nice, unselfish, saintly, altruistic, etc., others, not so nice, sometimes aggressive and violent.  In other words, "human nature" covers a range of traits, both "positive" and "negative".  They all have their "uses".  Unfortunately, the idea that "humans are naturally aggressive and violent" is simply a variation on a a very distorted reading of the idea of original sin.  Some early western Christians decided that humans were "naturally bad".  Traditionally, this has centered around  sexuality, but in modern times, "sexuality" is no longer considered particularly "sinful".  However, starting around the midi-1960's, "aggression" and "violence" have tended to be treated this way.  Part of this, at least in the US, stemmed from a horrified reaction to what was happening in Vietnam at the time, among other things.  Yet this idea became quite widespread, and it seems to have attracted the attention of some otherwise sensible types who, in my opinion should have known better.  In other words, this notion has gained widespread, and, I think, rather uncritical acceptance.  And when I've pointed this out, someone always comes up with something like this:  "You think humans aren't naturally aggressive and violent?  Just look at Rwanda, Darfur or "--put your favorite hotspot here. 


The trouble with this is, the people who come up with these examples are never talking about what anthropologists call "forager" societies.  And both Neandertals and early "moderns" were definitely in this category(hint:  such societies used to be called "hunter-gatherers").  Neandertals appear to have been a very small population indeed.  The earliest "moderns" had populations that probably weren't much larger, at least until well after Neandertals disappeared.  These kinds of small societies don't have the means, nor can they afford, the kind of violence and "aggression" most people think of, when they insist that "human nature is naturally aggressive".  This doesn't mean that aggressive behavior never occurs in such societies, but rather, that it is a lot more rare, and is channeled differently than in, say, some ghetto where drive by shootings occur all the time.


So it is possible that whatever caused Shanidar 3's injury, was not caused by some "modern" human at all.  It might have, for all we know, been two Neandertal tribes or clans or families arguing over some bit of prime woolly mammoth hunting grounds or the like.  We have no way of knowing this, absent a time machine, but it's a possibility that never seems to have occurred to Dr. Churchill.  It also never seems to have occurred to anybody that it's possible that Neandertals had projectile weapons we don't know about.  The Gentle Reader should bear in mind  that we really don't know all that much Neandertal cultures, or those of the earliest "moderns", for that matter. It is true that much is being learned every day, that wasn't known previously, but even so, there is still much we don't know, and, I think, much to be discovered.  What is being discovered, suggests that Neandertals were perfectly smart, and perfectly capable, and in almost all, if not all, ways, comparable to "modern" humans.  And if someone discovers  Schöningen-tyep  "javelins" in some Neandertal cave, then Dr. Steven Churchill will have to go back to his archaeological drawing board.

Anne G

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Lupine" news from all over

Wherever wolves become common, they start having an effect on the surrounding ecology. Animals that once had no effective prey, now start acting differently.  Take elk/red deer, (Cervus elaphus), for example.  It seems  that when they can feed, unhindered, in open areas, they have lots of calves.  Which is fine, up to a point.  But when wolves come into the picture, they flee to forest edges where it's harder for wolves to catch them.  Only trouble is, the graze isn't as rich in the forested areas.  So they don't have as many calves.  Maybe that will keep the wolf population from getting out of hand.


IN other wolf-related news, there is a move to reintroduce wolves to the Scottish Highlands , again in order to control elk/red deer.  These mammals(the deer, at least), have apparently gotten overabundant, just as they did in Yellowstone, before wolves were reintroduced.  I don't know what, if anything, reintroducing wolves to the Scottish Highlands might do.  Wolves tend to avoid people if they can, under "natural" circumstances, but although today the Scottish Highlands don't have that many people, they do seem to have a lot of sheep. And, like farmers and ranchers here in the US, farmers in Scotland might get a tad upset by having wolves around.  Still, it's an interesting proposal, seeing as how there haven't been any wolves, anywhere in Scotland for some 250 years.  And anyway, most people in Scotland live in cities and would probably love to know that there are wolves" out there".  It's going to be an interesting time for both wolves and people. . . .

Anne G

Sunday, July 19, 2009

And now for something completely different

I traveled light rail yesterday.  Seattle has finally gotten this, and maybe, just maybe, it will help eliminate traffic jams and pollution.  I hope so.  So my subject is "completely different", but as I rode, I decided to blog about it -- from a "writing" point of view.  So I hope the guests here don't mind my blathering about something other than writing, wolves, or Neandertals, for a change. 


The line begins in downtown Seattle, at the Westlake Station, where, for the last 20 years or so, people have been able to catch buses going to various parts of Seattle and surrounding areas.  Two years ago, after a long series of fights, as to whether or not se should even spend the money building such a thing, tunnels for light rail were added.  They opened for the first time at 9 a.m. yesterday, going from Westlake Station, in the heart of downtown Seattle, to a station in Tukwila, a town south of Seattle.  There was a mob waiting to get on when it first opened.  I didn't get there then.  But there was still a mob waiting to ride when I did get on, which was about 1:30 in the afternoon.  It was a cross-section of Our Fair City, but more on that later.  Once I got inside the Westlake station, there were Sound Transit people directing everybody to the roped-off area where the line quite obviously was forming.  I took my place and waited, but not very long.  The line was long, but it moved rapidly, and soon I was on the stairs, making my way to the place where you get on.  The wait for the actual light rail train wasn't too long, either


It was a day as close to what heaven might be like, as only a sunny summer day in Seattle can be.  You have to experience this to understand.  But we Seattleites did!  Because riding the light rail was like a giant party: everyone was laughing, conversing, and having a wonderful time, even though the first stage isn't quite completed yet(early next year, they will open a station near the SeaTac Airport).  And it was a smooth, nearly noiseless ride -- there were sections that were elevated, so that, to me, these parts felt, to me, much the way I feel when I'm dreaming that I'm flying.  But this was real!   The seats were a little hard and narrow, and on the way out, I was sitting sideways, beside two happily conversing teenage girls or twenty-somethings.  They appeared to be of Asian descent, probably Filipinas, for there are a lot of people originally from the Philippines in this area.  A little old lady, whose hair was grayer, and face wrinklier, than mine, also got on, and she looked like she needed a seat, so I gave it to her.  She didn't speak much English, but smiled appreciatively when I gave it to her.  I had a better view of the passing scene standing up, in any case. 


The present light rail  route goes through a part of Seattle which is home to many "minorities" and immigrants.  Many of them were on the light rail that day.  That is why I called the mob that got on a cross-section:  people of every race, color, creed, and age got on and thoroughly enjoyed themselves.   I heard several languages being spoken.  The non-English speakers seemed to be enjoying the ride, too. 


When we got to Tukwila -- a little less than 30 minutes later -- you had to go downstairs to this giant parking lot, which will presumably start functioning as a giant park and ride on Monday, I again followed the mob.  What was in the parking lot wasn't terribly interesting, except that if you wanted to, you could take a bus back into Seattle.  Hardly anybody wanted to.  I didn't.  So I decided to spend a little time wandering around, just in case, and at the end of the parking lot, I spied a booth where some nice ladies and gentlemen were urging the people of Tukwila and surrounding areas, to sign a petition to create bus links to places people really want to go, such as a  well-known shopping mall in the area, another nearby town, which has been renovated(it used to be a kind of "tacky" place, when I used to commute there), and some other destinations.  I told them I thought this was a good idea, and I was going to urge the same thing in my area.  Then I wandered back.


The wait to get back into town took longer.  Don't ask me why.  But people were pretty "cool" about it, and nobody complained.  About 20 or 25 minutes later(I didn't look at my watch), the mob boarded the bus again, and again the "party" atmosphere prevailed, but it was just fun, not at all rowdy.  I rode on a seat that faced "backwards", away from the direction the train was traveling.  That  was an interesting sensation, but everyone around me just joked about it.  I noticed there was a lot of art at each station, that I hadn't noticed before, including one "dancing woman" that people are invited to feel and/or dance with.  I'll have to go back and take a closer look, as I will at one of the "underground" stations, which commissioned a local artist to create artistic forms which are lighted from within, and look kind of like something you might see in a sci-fi film about friendly space aliens or the like.  At the "dancing woman" station, a group of hijab-clad women and girls got on.  If their general appearance was anything to go by, they were from Somalia.  There are a lot of Somalians who have made that part of Seattle their home, and they are hard-working and friendly.  I read in this morning's paper, that these women usually spend Saturdays sewing with their friends, but today the group decided to "be part of history" as they put it.  They "imbibed"  the "party" atmosphere, too.


Finally, the train came back to the Westlake Station, where the mob this time ascended the escalator.  I came out on a busy street, on a  warm summer Seattle day, and was again greeted by various people, including two who were stumping for a local political candidate I didn't know very much about. They handed me some literature and a sticker I could put on my tank top.  By this time, it was time to return home.  I can only say I was very satisfied with the trip, and will repeat it when it's less crowded(at least in order to see some of the artwork and maybe visit one of the nearby libraries).


Last, but not least, I have "memorabilia", in the form of a reusable cloth bag to carry things in, and a  commemorative to-shirt.  Now that, I love!  And this writer will look forward to more trips, on the train, though she may or may not blog about them!

Anne G

Friday, July 17, 2009

Not too many of them, I fear

Neandertals apparently were a small and widely scattered population, at least according to a paper whose abstract appeared in Dieneke's Anthropology blog.  I don't find this blog as useful for Neandernews(or other news about human evolution, for that matter; Dienekes  sees more separateness between even "modern" human populations than I do.  But from time to time, he collects things like this.


I've suspected for some time that part of the reason the Neandertals disappeared as a distinct type was simply that there were never very many of them.  At least one other worker that I know of, feels the same way,  but despite this, the person I'm thinking of, doesn't see as much separation between Neandertals and "moderns" as Dienekes does, either.


BE that as  it may, their existence was mostly "on the edge", because their populations apparently were quite small.  However, a small population or populations, though it tends to work against genetic diversity, also suggested in the paper Dienekes abstracted from, it doesn't preclude at least some.  And I hasten to emphasize that, at least for me, they were more "like" us, than different, which is one of the unstated premises of my Great Science Fiction Masterpieces With Neandertals.  And for anyone interested in such things, there has long been a suspicion that Neandertals had as much "cultural capacity" as anybody else in their situation.  In fact, a man named Brian Hayden wrote a long, but quite interesting academic paper called Cultural Capacities of Neandertals, way back in 1993.  It's a bit out of date by now, but the basics probably still hold; for those interested, you can find it in the Journal of Human Evolution, vol 34, pp 114-144(if I've cited this wrong, let me know, and I'll correct it at once)


In any case, small populations are more vulnerable to disaster and catastrophe of one kind or another, than larger ones, and Neandertals seem to have been very vulnerable.  While it doesn't look as though they left any genetic imprint on anyone, you have to remember that a small, scattered population may just end up being absorbed at times by a larger one.  It also looks as though "modern" human Paleolithic "foragers"(as "hunter-gatherers" are now called in anthropological circles), may themselves have been similarly absorbed by Neolithic farmers, so the chances of some tiny population last living some 30,000 years ago, in cold, Ice-Age Eurasia, is statistically rather slim.  Still, this study is interesting because it seems to show what can be done with the genetic material we have, from some of these long-gone populations.

Anne G

Thursday, July 16, 2009

"Write what you know"?

Gemi Sasson's blog, My Dog Ate My Manuscript, has a very interesting post today.  It's about the idea of "write what you know".  This is advice often given to young people who want to write "something", often by earnest teachers of high-school level English.  There's a good use for this idea, and I'll get to that shortly, but Ms. Sasson argues, and I agree with her, that if writers stuck only to "what they know", our world would be a lot poorer for it.  She gave the example of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and I'll have a little more to say about that, later on.  Her point, however, was that if Tolkien, or other writers, too, had stuck to "what they know", then Lord of the Rings and other famous pieces of literature would never have been written.  Which is why advice like this, though well-meant, can be absolutely deadly, and often discourages those who might want to write(or do something else that's creative, for that matter), from ever putting pen to paper, or, nowadays, words into a computer.  Because what many people know, or think they know, is pretty "mundane".  It is true that there are some writers who have a real gift for taking this mundane kind of experience, and turning it into fine writing.  E.B. White did this very well.  But he was as much an essayist as a "writer", though Charlotte's Web is a classic of children's literature, and there's no doubt that E.B.White was a fine writer. 


The majority of us who write, however, don't have this kind of gift, and while doing E.B. White-type essays might be good as exercises, most people probably won't develop this gift, even if they have it.  Writing is, after all, is, even when one is writing about something "factual", partly about imagination.  The "imagination" part is the ability to write prose that makes people want to read whatever is written, producing images or insights into the facts about which they are writing.  I have a nonfiction book I'm just finishing called The Forge of Christendom, whose author is very good at taking historical facts and putting them into colorful and compelling prose(though I'm not entirely sure how reasonable the man's central thesis is, though that's not relevant here). 


But unless one is writing certain kinds of literary fiction(and even here, the imagination of the author plays a very important part, in the way the story gets put together), writing "what you know" of "daily life", would be excessively confining for many.  So, Ms. Sasson's question "what about writing what you don't know?" is, in my opinion a legitimate one. 


Besides, if one truly doesn't know anything much about, say, molecular genetics(i certainly don't, though I refer indirectly to some aspects of this in my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals), there are resources available where one can learn the basics, if one so desires.  A writer can learn about almost anything he or she doesn't "know", if they can find the proper research resources.  For example, I knew absolutely nothing at all about Neandertals before I started try8ing to write Great Science Fiction Masterpieces,  and I still don't know all that much.  But then, based on my reading and research, nobody else really does, either.  There never were very many of them, and things like culture don't exactly fossilize. 


However, there is a sense in which writers always  apply "write what you know".  Sometimes it's a bit obvious, even crude, in a way.  Some authors write their dogs or cats into their stories.  I've read at least two authors who quite consistently do this.  This is certainly a form of "writing what you know", but the books the authors in question wrote, were about things that never happened in their lives.  Some other authors project aspects of themselves onto their characters(e.g., describing lots of their characters as blond if they themselves are blond -- yeah, I've read an author who does that, too), or writing fantasies based on the place they grew up in.  Stephen King did this kind of thing)and to some extent, still does), in his early novels; they're all set in a town in Maine very much like the town he grew up in.  He just asked "what if ---?" and has made a pile of money from the answers he came up with, yet I doubt if anybody has experienced much of anything in the way of events he came up with. I've never met a Neandertal and never will, but certain characteristics of some of my characters are partly based -- and I"m aware of this at least in retrospect, if not actually when I'm writing about them  -- on the personalities of family and friends.  The Pacific Northwest and its ecology features in some of the material I haven't yet gotten to, but will probably take up again. sooner or later, because I "know" the ecology so well.  After all, I grew up here.   But the products of that knowledge is not strictly factual; there aren't, as far as I am aware, any Neandertals living in former timber towns, nor are there any wolves -- yet -- in the forests on the "green" third, which is where I live.  I imply use some of these elements as part of the story, to create unique "flavors".  How well I succeed doing this is, of course, another question entirely. 


So "write what you know"  is not an entirely useless piece of advice, though I think it is too often wrongly suggested.  "Write what you know", is in other words, something not to be understood absolutely literally.  Rather, I think the writer ends up using what he or she knows from his or her own daily life and lifetime of experience, and applying it to characters and situations.  Most good writers end up learning how to do this one way or another, but it's a gradual process, and hardly a dictum.  So, writers beware!  If somebody tells you, "write what you know", you should  first refer them to the link I posted above, ignore the advice, start writing, and then see where your writing takes you.  I can guarantee you that, in some fashion, you will be "writing what you know", but not in a literal sense.  And I can also guarantee you, that if you do this, you will avoid the creativity-killing deadliness of it, and you will actually be able to write(or do something else that is creative).

Anne G

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Update on Washington wolves

I guess wolves have decoded they like the state of Washington.  Parts of it, anyway.  They like the parts of it where there are lots of yummy(to wolves, at least), deer, moose, snowshoe hare snacks, etc.  And now, in addition to the wolves that have made themselves at home on the eastern slope of the North Cascades.  Not only that, those wolves are being more or less protected from farmers and ranchers, which is nice for them and their pups.  But there's a second pack that our Department of Natural Resources now knows about.  This pack lives in Pend Oreille County, which is in the extreme northeast part of the state, significantly, near the Canadian border.  The wolf pack that trotted into Our Fair State. seems to have genetic connections with wolves in nearby British Columbia, and that part of B.C. is pretty wild and rugged.  The pack probably just started out as a pair that was looking for a suitable empty territory.  It seems like they found it, and now they're busy making more of their kind.  Interestingly, while wolves have been "delisted" from the federal Endangered Species list, they are considered, for obvious reasons, to be "endangered" in Washington State.  Before these two packs moved in, somebody shot the last wolf in Washington, back in the 1930's.  How sad.  I'm glad times have changed, though. 


sr_14wolves_07-14-2009_BEGI38K_t210For those interested, here's a picture of the latest addition to the wolf population in Washington State

Unfortunately, it's not very good.  Had I been able to download the larger(and better) picture to my files, then upload it here, the Gentle Reader of this blog would have noticed that one of the wolves has brindled markings, just the way some dogs do.  I was unaware that wolves can be brindled, but hardly surprised, since "man's best friend" is descended from them  If the Gentle Reader wants to see the brindled markings, all they have to do is click on the last link I mentioned, and a larger photo is available, that shows the brindled markings clearly. 

In any case, I'm gladder by the day, that the wolves are coming back,

Anne G

Thursday, July 9, 2009

On "writing forsoothly"

On one of the e-mail forums I visit, there has recently been a discussion about the use of archaic or "period" language in historical novels. I should make it clear, that  what I'm writing is not, strictly speaking, a "historical novel", though it does take place in "historical time". And it's centered around very real events, and has very real people in it.  That said, due to the nature of the documentation of this particular early medieval period, there has been a lot that I've just had to guess at and quite frankly, make up. On the other hand, I'm doing my best, in rewriting the first draft of my first book(it's a romantic science fiktion trilogy), to get the historical events at the very least, in the right order, and have the real people(and their fictional allies and enemies), in the right place at the right time.  Some of the events are a little confusing,and I haven't been able to find or create a straightforward timeline to help me out. 


Be that as it may, I am not writing in what some people call "forsoothly" style.  I don't find it very pleasing; to me, it is just a distraction from the story. By "forsoothly", or "gadzooks" or what I call "fake poetic", I mean a deliberately "archaic" way of writing, using lots of "nay", "aye" "ere", "tis", "twas", unnecessarily convoluted sentence structure, unnecessarily formal usages such as "upon" for "on",and so on. Incidentally, one well-known romance writer has labeled this sort of language "twisy-twasery", which I think describes it perfectly. 


People who write about, say, Elizabethan England might be able to get away with this kind of "twisy-twasery", because that was the way people tended to talk(especially if they had a reasonable education for the day); on the other hand, the writers who have tried this haven't generally been very successful at it. There's just too much of a gap between today's spoken English, and the English of Shakespeare's time. Again, in my opinion, it's best to leave this kind of "twisy-twasery" to Shakespeare,who at least knew what he was doing.


Go a few hundred years ahead to, say, the time ofthe American Revolution. Again, some people have tried to reproduce eighteenth century language for modern readers, and again, most  people have not succeeded very well.  One exception is the book Octavian Nothing, which was deliberately written this way for a purpose.  The author relied heavily on various writings and journals of that time, which are quite abundant.  But this is exceptional , because the rhythms of the speech of that day, no longer really exist in modern spoken or written English.  Sentence structure has become far less convoluted, words that were common 200 years ago have dropped out of the language, people don't wear powdered wigs any more, etcetera.  And we're talking, in both cases, about forms of what is considered "modern" English.  The English language(and other languages as well) have evolved quite rapidly in the last 500-250 years!  We have things like computers, which were unheard of 500-250 years ago, just to give an example. The word "biology" hadn't been "invented" yet(the scientist Lamarck was supposed to have invented it.


So the reader can see why I,for one, don't want to use this "twisy-twasery" in my Great Medieval Science Fiktion Masterpiece With Neandertals.  It doesn't take place 250 or 500 years ago, but nearer 1,000!  And the "English" people spoke then, was convoluted, all right.  It had a grammar and sentence structure more like German(which language has also changed a lot).  No one nowadays would be able to understand it for the most part, so why use "archaism" to suggest it?


I don't know, but some authors do, even when they're writing about a period where the language spoken would have been more or less incomprehensible to a modern speaker of that language.  And some readers seem to like this convention.  I suppose, as one of the participants in the discussion pointed out, it's a matter of taste. Readers who aren't writers might not notice these "conventions" quite so much.  No, they might not notice them at all, especially if the writer is also a good storyteller.  Which is important, and I will get to that shortly.


But writers, once they actually begin to write, start noticing these things.  It's an important part of the process of learning to write.  And it annoys some of them, including me.  From my point of view,if you want to transport people to a different time and place,whether it is 1000, 500, or 250 years(or even back in, say, the 1960's), there are better ways of doing this.  Describe the houses, the clothes people wore, mention the important people and events and how your characters react to them.  You don't have to dwell on this, just sprinkle these tidbits throughout your narrative!  Besides, as an author I quoted pointed out in an earlier post, people speaking to one another in an earlier time, sounded "contemporary" to each other! 


Still, to some readers, who "expect" characters living in historical times to "talk historical", writing in what I kill "modern standard" might be jarring.  To them, I can only say two things:  first, I'm not writing a strictly "historical" novel(it's really a type of science fiktion), and second, because it's something of a "hybrid", I don't exactly see why I should write "twisy-twasery"(I really like that phrase).  Yes, to a reader, this is a matter of taste, I suppose.  For a writer, some stylistic conventions are just too jarring.  This is one of them.

Anne G

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Why I won't write biographical fiction

For some time now, I've been kritiquing two very different works-in-progress by writers who specialize, or want to specialize, in biographical fiktion.  For reasons that have to do with the nature of the critique group, I can't go into much detail about them.  However, I ken speak in general terms about them.  One of the  biographies is about a person I've heard of, but just barely.  The other is a fictional biography about a person I never heard of, and about whose time period I know almost nothing about.  It so happens that the subject was married to someone I've heard of, but also know almost nothing about this person.  Though the writing in the first book I mentioned is a bit "lumpy" -- that is, there is a lot of work and polishing to do, the author still manages to tell a very interesting story -- so far -- about this particular person's life, or at least that part of the person's life.  The author has, in other words, an instinctive gift for creating sources of conflict,and therefore making an interesting and readable story. 


Which brings me to the second book I'm critiquing  The writing in this particular work-in-progress is much more polished, most of the time.  And the author has a gift for creating very vivid scenes.  However, the overall tone of the book is, well -- episodic.  As a consequence,  it's a much less interesting story, in my opinion.


There's a fair amount of biographical fiction around these days.  Apparently, a fair number of readers like it,and some writers have said they only feel comfortable writing about known characters with lives around which they can build a story(mainly by inventing dialogue and thought processes).  Some biographikal fiktion is actually very good(here, Sharon Kay Penman comes to mind, mainly because she writes about "larger-than-life" people who lived very "dramatic" lives.  It is easy to write interesting biographikal fiktion about such people; you don't have to do much "inventing" because the potential conflicts are already there.


Unfortunately, most people's lives aren't that "dramatic".  This is true even of famous, "larger than life" people.  Besides which, many of these writers tend to choose subjects whose lives are very well known(think Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, etcetera), whose lives have often been written about.  Some skilled writers ken make drama out of the lives of such people, but mostly they don't succeed very well.  And for this reason, though such subjects are potentially interesting, I tend to find most biographical fiktion rather boring, largely because I already know the trajectory of their lives; there's no real drama and/or conflict.  Or if there is, it is presented in a way, that, like the second author I mentioned, is basically "episodic".  Because most people's lives are "episodic".  One thing after another happens in their lives, but the things that happen are not, in themselves, particularly dramatic or interesting. And that is the problem.  Tastes differ, and for a lot of people, if they don't know anything much about Elizabeth I or Napoleon or George Washington, or whoever, then reading an "episodic" fictional account of their life,will be interesting, and perhaps they might even learn enough, to try to discover more on their own.  I used to do this a lot when I was in high school, and I learned a lot about the people and the historical context in which they lived their lives, besides reading some fairly decent authors who wrote about them.


The authors who do biographikal fiktion nowadays are also quite good, and there's nothing wrong with their output.  A lot of people enjoy the works of Elizabeth Chadwick, particularly her biographikal fiktion about William Marshal, who was most definitely a larger-than-life character.  There were some aspects of his life that were quite dramatic, too.  But most of the biographikal fiktion I've read, is written by authors far less skilled than Ms. Chadwick or Sharon Kay Penman(my only problem with Penman, really, is her tendency to write "forsoothly"/in "gadzooks" style/in "fake poetic"; please, pretty please with a cherry on top, the next time you write a book about medieval England, write it in plain,standard modern English!).  And the results of their efforts are -- episodically boring.  I've never finished a book of biographikal fiktion by any of these less talented authors -- and no, I'm not mentioning any names.


Of course, I probably shouldn't complain.  I'm writing a "hybrid" of sciences fiktion and "historical epic", which I kill "romantic science fiction".  But though there are historical characters in it, one of whom is definitely a "main" protagonist, and there are other historical characters throughout, I'm not writing "biographies".  Besides, the majority of characters are strictly fictional, although I've done my best to be as historically accurate as I can.  I think I owe this to the probable "crossover" crowd that might be interested in reading my efforts, assuming I can finish the thing and then get it published.  Besides, tastes differ. Some people really do like biographical fiktion.  But then, some people like "inspirational romances" too;.  You won't catch me writing those, but I would never say "don't read biographikal fiktion" or "don't read inspirational romances".  Some people really like "hard" science fiktion, but I'm not one of them, and furthermore, I don't think I"m technically proficient enough to write "hard" science fiktion.  There are a lot of people who like to read Jane Austen's corpus. I've never been able to get into Jane Austen, but I sure like Dickens.  The point is, there's nothing wrong with differing tastes.  But I don't much care for most biographikal fiktion; I think it's a bit too limiting as a subgenre for most writers to do really well.  But that's me.  And that's why I won't write it.  I don't think I can do it well enough, but then, tastes can change.  And who knows?  I might write biographikal fiktion some day, if I ken find somebody whose life isn't too "episodic", and I have time to do the proper research. . . .

Anne G

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The medieval year, one version, or maybe many

The blog Got Medieval -- which often has very interesting tidbits about one medieval subject or another, posted a very interesting blog yesterday.  It's called Welcome to July.  The blog informs us that in July, peasants usually had to bind the ripened grain they grew into sheaves.  In July.  Now I don't doubt that medieval peasants did a lot of "scything and sheaving" in July.  The grain had to be laid out to dry so it could be stacked and then made into sheaves.  Usually, the weather was warm enough and dry enough so that this could be done relatively easily, barring the odd rainy day or so.  If that happened, the grain might rot and people might end up hallucinating all sorts of things, due to ergot poisoning(yes, this happened). The other thing that is important to understand about medieval agricultural economy is that June and July were months of relative "scarcity", though in the earlier medieval period, especially from about 900-1300 AD/CE -- In the so-called "Medieval Warm Period", this wasn't too severe a problem anywhere.  Medieval people had other problems at the time, but I won't go into those at the moment.  IN any case, or at least in some cases, the way the months were named in various places, tended to reflect either the kind of activity that was going on at the time, or the weather and climatic conditions.  In some places, the months were not named January, February, March, etc., but something else.


Here is a list of "modernized" Old English months.  From the descriptions, the reader can see what people in England, at least, did at any given time of the year


January  -- Wolf Month(guess why?)  I've seen paintings of Romanian villages surrounded by wolves in winter,  so it's not just the medieval English that worried about such things

February -- Kale Month  Kale is a very hardy dark green vegetable.  A lot of "foodies" eat kale today, in January and February, when few other green vegetables will grow, even in a relatively "mild" climate like the Pacific Northwest.  It's supposed to be rich in all kinds of things that are "good for you".

March --  Lent Month, and that's where English-speakers get the liturgical season of Lent, since the days are beginning to lengthen.

April  -- Easter Month(and I'll leave to your imagination what liturgical season that has morphed into in the English-speaking world).  There's more to it than that, but again, I won't go into it at this moment.

May  -- Mead Month, probably because flowers really started blooming and bees started producing honey, an important ingredient in the alcoholic drink, mead,which was probably an important source of income for at least some people

June -- Hay Month.  This is when the "scything" or "haying" of grain began, and the weather was probably (mostly) good enough to lay it out for later stacking into sheaves.

July -- Summer Month.  Well, that's pretty obvious.  July is a summer month.  And that's when the "sheaving of grain is in full swing, according to Got Medieval.

August --  "Ern" Month.  I'm not sure what this means, but it was a busy month for medieval peasants, because the grain harvest was probably going on in full swing.

September -- Harvest Month.  Again, this is pretty obvious. This is when agricultural produce was harvested in earnest, and the agricultural season could be assessed as to its relative success.  Other produce was probably also harvested, and preparations made for the coming winter and leaner spring season.  This was also the season of "harvest festivals".  In modern times,it tends to also be the season of things like county and regional fairs.

October  -- Wine Month.  If the modern reader thinks this Old English name for the month is peculiar, think again of the Medieval Warm Period.  In England, wine grapes were grown as far north as the property of Ely Abbey.  Once it cooled off(the Little Ice Age), neither Ely Abbey, nor any other place in England, could grow wine grapes.  Now, I'm told, people are growing wine grapes in parts of England today.  Thank you, global warming(I guess)!

November -- Wind Month.  That's pretty obvious, too.  At least from a "Pacific Northwest" point of view.  It can get pretty blastingly windy in November and December, and we've had some rather awful storms in that month, coming out of the Bering Sea.  Of course blastingly windy winter weather didn't come from the Bering Straits to England, then or now, but  winter winds did, and awful wind and rain storms were noted in certain years, by monastic chroniclers.

December -- Midwinter Month.  Again, pretty obvious.  December is the month winter begins, according to various calendars. Again, interestingly,in modern times,  meteorologists calculate a "meteorological winter" from December 1st. Which makes sense for much of the US, and probably much of Europe, as well.  Although I did read, some years back, in a book called -- get this -- Weather for Dummies -- that the Pacific Northwest has neither winter,nor summer, according to meteorological calculations.  There's no "winter", in most of Texas, either.  But summer starts on or about April 15.  I know this is true, because I lived it.   That, at least, was one problem people in medieval England didn't have to cope with!

Anne G